Entries Tagged 'web services' ↓

Drop the Mouse. Put Your Hands in the Air. Back Away From the UI.

Our intrepid CIO, Justin Webb, has far too much common sense for his own good. He’ll never make it in this town.

Seriously, Justin and I were here together in 2008 for the coming of Sharepoint (before he was CIO). He and I slogged through the implementation of that baby over an 18-month period that felt like it would never end. It gave birth to a bouncing baby EagleNet.

Since November of 2009, EagleNet has been our University’s portal. “Portal” is one of those words that sounded SO sexy in 2003, but by the time we got to Sharepoint, we had seen the communications, training, and maintenance headaches that portals can bring. The dream of aggregating communications based on ERP data about a person’s role is a good one. The problem is, the companies that deal with data should be told to, “Drop the mouse. Put your hands in the air. Back away from the UI.” (and no one will get hurt).

Sharepoint is one of those nifty all-in-one tools that aggregates, collaborates, authenticates, productivity-ates, and gets-us-cute-prom-dates. It’s another of those motherships that promises all things wonderful.

The best thing about motherships is that they are, out of the box, pretty robust and sturdy. The trouble with motherships is that they are very, very hard to steer. That makes them GREAT for corporate environments with few differentiating factors within internal audiences. A single, sturdy, homely UI works okay in that mediocre kinda way when you stick with a vanilla installation and provision using the delivered tools.

But higher ed audiences are nothing if not idiosyncratic — not just within a University, but between universities. Student populations can be undergraduate, residential, international, non-traditional, in any number of major programs. And that is just one audience group. Throughout the year, each of these many audiences requires a clear way to get to information.

So the object was to use Sharepoint as a layer of targeted communications over the portal, essentially mimicking what we had with Luminis, providing single sign-on to our Banner SSB for students in the bargain. This involved a LOT of customization, including some pretty complicated code for maintaining a Banner session within the Sharepoint authentication scheme. The developer who did this (no longer with UMW) was truly a genius in getting this to work. But, not everyone has a genius on staff.

Bottom line: We twisted Sharepoint into a pretzel to make it do what it’s doing. And here’s what it’s doing:

  • Complicating getting directly to Banner SSB,
  • Delivering 3 widgets of targeted/authenticated information for the new incoming student, useful for 3 months out of the year, and too complicated to manage to allow for distributed content authorship, so content management stays within IT.
  • Delivering about 9 widgets of personalized information from Banner SSB to all audiences.
  • Hosting unused personal pages, called “MySites,” for all students, faculty, and staff.
  • Delivering a collection of about 80 or so collaboration sites, of which a handful are being used actively.
  • Serving as a pretty spiffy scalable reporting tools platform.

Other than the last two bullet points (in bold above), EagleNet doing very little for all the development and maintenance costs, not to mention the development and testing work involved every time Banner or Sharepoint is upgraded. Well, Banner SSB has an all new interface called Cascade, and Sharepoint is moving from 2007 to 2010. Time to commit to hiring more .NET programming skill for more customization and retooling of this enormously complicated environment for little UI benefit, or cut bait.

Then there is mobile. Delivering itty-bitty widgets of information just doesn’t cut it in a mobile UI. On mobile, you want to get the info, and get out, because, let’s face it, you’re driving.

Snide remarks aside, I would argue that this notion of having a web-based UI that provides pertinent GROUP and PERSONAL messages and data is a viable one. So, how to extricate that essentially sound idea from a UI that was developed in service to the infrastructure, rather than the user? I thought you’d NEVER ask.

Enter the work Curtiss and I have been doing on Banner and Active Directory data in WordPress, using Banner Web services. It is a lightweight infrastructure, without all the vendor lockin nonsense of a “systems-based” delivered UI. It is the notion of small pieces, loosely joined, coming to fruition in a very big and profound way. Here’s what we are going to begin developing (implementation quite a ways down the road, so don’t panic!):

  • Use WordPress for the UI.
  • Aggregate targeted web content from posts throughout the university Multi-network environment using RSS feeds, FeedWordPress, and our own Cross-Site Featured Posts plugin.
  • Deliver Banner Web Services (already doing that) to WordPress based on AD authentication (already doing that, too). That allows the viewing of targeted (WordPress aggregated) and personal (Banner Web Services) content upon login.
  • Implement a Central Authentication Service (CAS) server to maintain a session between authenticated WordPress and Banner SSB.

Here is what you get at the end:

  • A flexible, accessible, responsive, mobile-friendly UI that leverages skills on staff AND within a broad WordPress community
  • No more Rube Goldberg authentication code in .NET that needs to be retooled every time Microsoft or Ellucian decides to improve on their products, dragging their clunky, afterthought UI’s along for the ride.
  • Banner screens break out from frames and use standard form layout, minimizing re-styling and customization.
  • IT concentrates on security, authentication, hosting and data delivery.
  • The Web team concentrates on aggregation and UI.
  • University Relations and the rest of the University continue to deliver content to their stakeholders through WordPress, as they are already.
  • Open standards, application-agnostic methods for authentication and session maintenance that could potentially apply to any number of apps and aggregation layers in the future.
  • Complex, compulsory, EagleNet portal layer is replaced by an opt-in Sharepoint installation that continues to support its core functionality: internal collaboration and reporting tools.
  • No more supporting thousands of abandoned, hard to manage “MySites”. UMW Blogs and a Domain of One’s Own are, after all, the most useful personal web publishing platforms we have in-house, and the internet is lousy with cheap or free personal web publishing environments that people can share with the WORLD, not just internally, as MySites do.
I know this is a lot to swallow in words. I have a way to illustrate these changes in simple pictures but, for now, I’ll leave it at the above. I’m pretty jazzed — it’s so nice to be around so long that you can break the stuff you helped to build, and build it better. Also nice to have Justin Webb as a CIO who is interested in solving problems, minimizing costs, being willing to kill a darling or two in  support of the UMW mission in the bargain. Justin Webb (IT champion of the Domain of One’s Own) is an unsung hero — oh, and a Mary Washington alum, by the way.

Academics Front and Center on a Public University Site

The joy of being at UMW for so long is that knowledge of the institution becomes so granular, layered, and subtle, that you can begin to delve below the surface and pick apart how to make it all work. The UMW website has been an iterative laboratory of ideas for me, barring a 3 1/2-year period where a re-org moved the website to a different office. Each redesign I’ve embarked on– 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2010–has been done with more than the goal of a design facelift. At each stage, I’ve tried to join together messages about the University in a coherent whole, doing the best I can with the resources and tools available.

Barring 2004, which was largely a cosmetic and URL update for the purposes of our name change from “Mary Washington College” to “University of Mary Washington”, each re-design has included upgrades to authoring and site management tools to expand content management of the public site to areas deep within the institution. By 2007, when I handed the site over for maintenance to the new Webmaster, we had 210 web administrators on the academic and administrative sides with nearly ALL using a single look and feel in a single system. Not to brag, but, I don’t see a lot of Universities achieving that.

What seemed impressive to my contemporaries at other institutions was the consistent look and feel at all levels. But, in all honesty, although that was the agenda from the powers that be, it was not MY agenda. I wanted to build a culture of awareness for each user to feel like a responsible steward of public information given our role as a public institution. I evolved into this way of thinking after having the privilege of participating in interminable Thursday-morning DoIT meetings with the likes of Chip German, Gardner Campbell, Martha Burtis, and Jim Groom.

Enter UMW Blogs and WordPress, and a new way of web authoring at UMW, moved the “node” of information from the department to the person. What resulted was amazing open conversation on all the remarkable disciplines at this rich jewel of a liberal arts and science university. By 2008, the institution had the courage to link to UMW Blogs from its home page. But this was just dipping our toes in the water of truly exposing what was happening on our campus.

When I returned to my role as Webmaster, and later Director of Web Communications, in July 2010, the institution was once again poised for a redesign. But, redesign with all this rich groundwork already laid would have to reach to an even higher purpose: to turn an exposition of an IDEALIZED UMW to a public conversation with the REAL UMW.

The fact is, UMW Blogs is the most effective web tool for telling the world about what is really happening with teaching and learning here — our core mission. It’s more powerful than any beautiful and easy-to-navigate website can deliver. Through WordPress, FeedPress, and Banner web services, we are finally building a public web presence that is flexible and PERMEABLE. The goal: to expose real-time academic activity as THE driver to make anyone interested in coming to a place that graduates 21st century critical thinkers who can compete in the global information economy. Martha Burtis characterized this as (paraphrasing): “Not online learning, but learning online.”

Over the next few months, please look for the rollout of the following features on UMW public site to enable just that to begin earnest:

  1. Banner Web Services Plugin: Through a core plugin, we are developing a way to consume real-time public data from our Banner systems. Banner data standards for departments, faculty, courses, and disciplines are essentially built into the taxonomy of the WordPress networks, enabling aggregation of information from many points to many different locations. Thanks to Enterprise Application Services for creating all of those nifty web services for us!
  2. Faculty Professional Pages: Each faculty member will be able to write their own online bio (proofreading still available), publish and aggregate all of their blogs and social media to a single web page on the PUBLIC WEBSITE, and have their current courses and department affiliations, including any UMW Blogs related to current courses, automagically appear on the same page. A sample faculty member will look like this:New Faculty Aggregation Point
  3. Majors, Minors, Courses of Study: Banner data enables aggregation of catalogue data, blogs, videos, news releases, faculty, and social bookmarks for each discipline. Each discipline’s feed is controlled by that department.  This gives a real-time snapshot of what’s happening at UMW in that discipline right now, as the department wants to showcase how it teaches within the discipline. It also gives an apples-to-apples, in-depth look at all disciplines in one place, looking something like this:
  4. FeedWordPress: With all of the above in place, DTLT will work in a standalone installation of FeedWordPress to curate, slice, dice and combine feeds for consumption anywhere on the UMW Multi-Network from UMW Blogs sites, and back.
  5. University Taxonomy: We’ve played with this a bit, and have a version of it in place on the Document repository, but we have not institutionalized or developed a final UMW Taxonomy tool that all sites and blogs can use to categorize their content so that it can be aggregated with other content on the site. How this plays out under the hood is unknown. We will need faculty and staff input on what those taxonomies should be.

If you are still reading, I thank you for hanging in with me. This thinking began in 2008, and this actual development has been going on in our office for months now. Jim Groom’s post last week gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start writing about it in more concrete terms. He’s useful that way 🙂

Oh, and yes, Curtiss and I would be happy to put together developer and user documentation once the lion’s share of this work is complete. Curtiss Grymala has released all of his UMW plugins to the WordPress codex, and we thoroughly support the culture of open source development.